Can China’s Military Win the Tech War?

- FOREIGN AFFAIRS - Jul 29, 2020 -

Anja Manuel and Kathleen Hicks -

A military parade in Beijing, China, October 2019 Li Yibo Xinhua / eyevine / Redux

How the United States Should—and Should Not—Counter Beijing’s Civil-Military Fusion

As the Chinese government has set out to harness the growing strength of the Chinese technology sector to bolster its military, policymakers in the United States have reacted with mounting alarm. U.S. officials have described Beijing’s civil-military fusion effort as a “malign agenda” that represents a “global security threat.” And as China’s defense capabilities have grown, some Western policymakers have started to wonder whether the United States needs to adopt its own version of civil-military fusion, embracing a top-down approach to developing cutting-edge technologies with military applications.

Chinese President Xi Jinping formalized the concept of civil-military fusion as part of the extensive military reforms laid out in his 2016 five-year plan. He established a new Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development, with himself as its head. The commission’s goal is to promote the development of dual-use technology and integrate existing civilian technologies into the arsenal of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The United States and its allies should take seriously Beijing’s efforts to militarize China’s technological base. Yet they should also recognize the strategy’s limitations, to avoid overreacting in ways that would prove counterproductive. China’s bureaucratic and authoritarian approach to civil-military fusion is likely to waste considerable time and money. By trying to control innovation, Beijing is more likely to delay and even stifle it.

The United States will fare no better if it tries to mimic China’s model of civil-military fusion. Instead, it should build on existing U.S. advantages in research and technology—advantages that are increasingly at risk not because of China but because of a lack of agility and creativity among U.S. planners and policymakers.

Washington does need a strategy to strengthen its national security technology and industrial base, but it should be one that is centered on collaborative disruption that generates the right incentives for innovators, scientists, engineers, venture capitalists, and others. With forward-looking changes in the Defense Department and smart investments across government, the United States can secure the edge in defense capabilities on its own terms.


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